Alexander von Humboldt: the first Solarpunk

Alexander von Humboldt served as a role model for Goethe’s Faust and helped Thomas Jefferson build the agricultural power of the United States. He inspired Charles Darwin to hop on the beagle to follow in his steps, Thoreau to seek close connection to nature at the Walden Pond, and Muir to create the national park system.

He has sown the seeds for the environmental movement of today, but he was not enthusiastic about the prospects:

“The human species could turn even those distant stars ‘barren’ and leave them ‘ravaged’”, Humboldt wrote as early as 1801, just as they were already doing with earth.

Andrea Wulf, the Invention of Nature

Humboldt was captivated by lush nature but loved humanity and the new technological developments. He believed that if we understand Nature and the laws governing her, we can create a sustainable future. He was the first Solarpunk and here are his ideas:

#1: Everything is Connected

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

John Muir wrote, summarizing Alexander von Humboldt’s ideas.

The idea of interconnectedness is central to Alexander von Humboldt’s intellectual pursuits. His relentless curiosity drove him to explore the messy reality of nature. Before Humboldt’s time, the role of the scientist was like one of the librarian – classify, label, and shelve facts. The most recent breakthrough of the natural sciences was the binomial classification – a system of grouping species originating from counting how many teeth or hooves they may have. Humboldt quite prophetically was opposed to such one-dimensional treatment of Nature and relegating science to forever slicing up the world into smaller pieces so they can neatly fit on a bookshelf.

Probably his most influential concept was the Naturgemalde: A vision, painting, and a scene illustrating how different parts of the ecosystem influence each other.

Humboldt’s Naturgemalde: the cross-section of Chimborazo volcano with the entire ecosystem explained.

Naturgemalde was not only a new way to showcase facts and figures like the altitude, vegetation, and snow cover of the Chimborazo volcano but the first piece of art illustrating the influence of these facts over each other. It was during the assembly of Naturgemalde that Humboldt first introduced the idea of vegetation zones – the altitude and temperature range suitable for certain species of plants, creating similar ecosystems in similar places around the globe. 

The evocative nature of the painting has inspired a generation of artists to seek unity and deepen our understanding of Nature instead of resigning ourselves to classify it.

#2: What speaks to the soul escapes our measurements

“What speaks to the soul escapes our measurements.”

Alexander von Humboldt, from the Invention of Nature

Humboldt was a scientist through and through. But as Leonardo Da Vinci before him and Richard Feynman two centuries later, he found beauty in discovering the truth about the world. Nature was a value in itself for Humboldt, not just a means to an end or something to conquer.

It is that emotional bond with the world that let him create the Naturgemalde.

“Nature every where speaks to man in a voice familiar to his soul.”

Alexander von Humboldt, from the Invention of Nature

Poets and authors like Coleridge, Goethe, Thoreau, and Verne were deeply moved by Humboldt’s descriptions of the natural world and paid him homages in their own art. Goethe based Doctor Faust on his dear friend Humboldt, and Julius Verne made sure that Nautilus contained “the complete works of Humboldt”, as Captain Nemo was a great fan.

#3 Humanity has to work WITH nature.

During his travels, Humboldt saw the ruthlessness with which humans treated nature.

Humboldt wrote about the destruction of forests and of humankind’s long-term changes to the environment. When he listed the three ways in which the human species was affecting the climate, he named deforestation, ruthless irrigation, and, perhaps most prophetically, the ‘great masses of steam and gas’ produced in the industrial centres.

The Invention of Nature

Humboldt understood the connections between different parts of the ecosystem and it was clear that short-sighted exploitation of nature will not only destroy habitats but also have dire consequences for humanity. He wasn’t opposed to technology (in fact, he was very excited by the advancements of the 19th century), but he advocated for a nuanced approach towards nature rather than plantations of cash crops.

Solarpunk

252 years after the birth of Alexander von Humboldt birth, the world hasn’t changed much. His prophetic warnings about Humanity’s devastating impact on the natural world have unfortunately came to pass, and we are still trying to find our way out of this mess. I believe that way is the Solarpunk – a trend focusing on inspiring a sustainable future through art, and finding a way for modern technology to coexist with lush nature.

Solarpunks believe that this way is through Art and Technology. Humboldt believed in the power of art to capture and express more than formulas ever could and to inspire others to appreciate the complexity of Nature. Solarpunks believe that this Art can also inspire technologists to create sustainable solutions and policymakers to implement them. Humboldt believed that technology not only can, but has to coexist with Nature:

Humboldt, however, warned that humankind needed to understand how the forces of nature worked, how those different threads were all connected. Humans could not just change the natural world at their will and to their advantage. ‘Man can only act upon nature, and appropriate her forces to his use,’ Humboldt would later write, ‘by comprehending her laws.’

Andrea Wulf, the Invention of Nature

Solarpunks believe that technology coexisting with nature is the only way out of our climate predicament. Alexander von Humboldt was the first member of the Solarpunk movement.

One more thing: I am helping to fund a Solarpunk Art Contest and we are waiting for your Naturgemalde.

Farmers always Worked From Home

As the gripping cold conceded to the heatwaves in July, we moved to the countryside for a few weeks. There, we have a good view of our neighbors’ farm. While those small farmers are still around, we’re ecstatic to observe the rhythms of the rural lifestyle.

When the cow moos full of milk, my neighbor has to milk her. When the rye is ripe in July, he works 16 hours a day to scythe, sweep, and rake. He collects his chickens’ eggs at 5 am and waters the vegetables at 8 pm when the sun is not so scorching anymore.

Countless articles recommend keeping “Work-Life Balance”. Leave your job at 5 PM, turn off the work phone/email and enjoy your “Life”. It is crucial to set proper boundaries – the articles state in unison. Keep your mental hygiene.

My neighbor is too busy to sit in the office scrolling articles on the Internet, so he hasn’t heard about Work-Life Balance. He does what he needs to, and he rests in between. He sees the fruits of his labor and spends hours watching the rye grow. I envy him sometimes.

He lives on that farm. Farmers were working from home long before COVID. 

In the 1800s, 90 percent of the US population lived on a farm, rocking their WFH setups. How did they all survive without mental breakdowns and Harvard Business Review articles praising strict Work-Life Balance?

I believe we have the work-life balance debate wrong. Instead of introducing more rigid walls between Life and Work, we should focus on keeping a dynamic equilibrium – just like my neighborhood farmer.

Do things that need to be done, and stop sitting in place just because the clock tells you to.

Anne-Laure Le Cunff from Ness Labs touches on that issue in her article “The problem with work-life balance“, starting with the phrase itself:

“That’s a debilitating phrase because it implies there’s a strict trade-off. And the reality is, if I am happy at home, I come into the office with tremendous energy. And if I am happy at work, I come home with tremendous energy. It actually is a circle; it’s not a balance.”

I don’t have such issues with the phrasing, but I think we have it wrong where we think “balance” means tall walls between parts of life. But balance may mean a dynamic equilibrium (as in “Power of Full engagement“) – when one side of your work+life pie gets outsized, you compensate – from Anne-Laure’s article:

One day, one of your kids may get sick; another day, you may need to replace a colleague on the spot; yet another day, you may feel a burst of productivity and get so much done you can take a really nice break. It feels different to work in the summer than in the winter; it feels harder to work when you lack sleep; it feels easier when your colleagues are being helpful. These are ever changing factors you can’t control,

Demand more Life from your Work

Time is a bit cruel. It flies by when you’re having fun, and drags on forever when you’re counting minutes for your shift to end. So you can just decide to have a little more fun, and work will be less exhausting. Any workplace can provide:

  • Fulfillment and Challenge
  • Working on something bigger than yourself
  • Coworkers that can be turned into Friends.

If you’re trying to introduce strict boundaries between work & life, you’re going to treat your job as the enemy and something to run away from the first chance you’ll get.

Avoid BS (As in BuSywork) like the plague. You shouldn’t do constant overtime just to “prove your loyalty”. But if you get a chance to do something awesome, don’t throw it away just because it’s 5 PM.

A thing I wrote

Learn to delegate by hiring a Virtual Assistant

Before becoming a Team Lead, I hired a VA to train my delegation muscle. It has taught me to let go of micromanaging tendencies. It paid off for my Team and my Family.

Interesting things from around the web

The Most Precious Resource is Agency

Simon Sarris has articulated one of my talking points much better than I ever could: The school teaches children to be passive consumers of life.

We seem to have a political (public) imagination so shallow that it cannot conceive of what to even do with children, especially smart children. We fail to properly respect them all the way through adolescence, so we have engineered them to be useless in the interim.

But it does not have to be this way. In fact, we can teach them BOTH agency, and knowledge from the curriculum:

The secret of the world is that it is a very malleable place, we must be sure that people learn this, and never forget the order: Learning is naturally the consequence of doing.

Thanks to the Internet, you can undo years of school trauma today:

You don’t have to wait for professionals to tell you how to make stuff, you can just make stuff. Start typing

Owner of Gail.com refuses to sell the domain to typosquatters

Typosquatters register domains similar to known, existing ones hoping that somebody misspells the address and end up on their site instead.

The owner of Gail.com received the domain from her husband, and it turns out many people end up there instead of gmail:

In 2020 this page received a total of 5,950,012 hits, which is an average of 16,257 per day. Looking at just unique hits, we received a total of 1,295,284, for an average of 3,539 unique hits per day. Occasionally, we get Twitter-bombed and may get several tens of thousands of visitors a day. As an example, on July 21st 2020 we received 109,316 hits.

This person, an outstanding Internet citizen refuses to pollute the common good:

Q: Are you interested in monetizing gail.com?
A: No, but thanks for asking.
Q: Don’t you know that you could throw some ads up and make money?
A: Yes, I know, thank you. For those who feel they need more advertising in their life, please have a look at our swanky Electronic Frontier Foundation ad below. If you believe in a free Internet, please consider clicking on the link and donating to the EFF.

Be like the owner of gail.com.

Lego Lost at Sea

On Feb 23rd 1997, nearly 5 million bits of Lego fell into the ocean when a huge wave hit the cargo ship Tokio Express, washing 62 containers overboard. We’re still finding it 24 years later. Among the pieces lost were green dragons, highly prized among beachcombers.

Lego Lost at Sea project documents those findings but has since expanded to all plastic debree washing out on Cornish beaches.

402 Payment Required and why micropayments are doomed

The promise of fast, seamless micropayments (by micro I mean <$1) has been circling around the web for a while now. The original HTTP status codes, created over 30 years ago, even contain a „placeholder” for such a system, which is still reserved for future use:

The HTTP 402 Payment Required is a nonstandard client error status response code that is reserved for future use.

With the advent of Bitcoin, related arbitrage opportunities, and attention economy problems, cryptocurrency experts have renewed interest in providing micropayments solutions.

But I am not convinced this is a problem worth solving.

The administrative cost of accepting payments

Accepting payments and donations has their administrative cost. Taxes, fulfillment, answering support questions, upkeep of the payment system – most of this stuff can be automated, but you are never able to get rid of these pesky details.

Of course, the answer is easy – just make it up with higher volume!

But there is a catch-22. With more volume, there is more upkeep, more treadmill, more support, and bigger risk that you will run into a problematic customer. This constant administrative cost is a reason why every Credit Card processor charges a roughly similar rate for processing payments. They have overhead too.

2.9% + 30c of the fixed cost.

Dire reality of Paypal, Stripe and other processors

The cognitive cost of the purchase

Each payment has not only a material cost but also a cognitive cost. While you are purchasing something, you not only whip out your hard-earned cash, but you also have to make a purchase decision.

  • Is this really worth paying for?
  • From the myriad options available, is this one the best?
  • How much did I spend already this week?

All these decisions go through the customer’s head each time they are trying to buy something on the web (and IRL). That means, that each customer can only make so many purchases, regardless of their price.

While customer pays a higher price, you benefit. If they pay a high cognitive cost, everybody loses.

Subscriptions and bundles

Bundles and Subscriptions are both ways of addressing this issue.

  • The purchase decision is made only once. In case of a bundle, its spread over items and in case of a subscription – over time.
  • The administrative cost for the seller is also more manageable. It’s one customer instead of many, one fulfillment and one line item in a tax sheet.

That is why you are witnessing an explosion of subscription services – Spotify, Disney+, Netflix… Even Apple is moving to Apple TV+ because iTunes pay-for-a-single-episode model didn’t work out.

Micropayments are never taking off.

There are a million exciting technical ways of making micropayments work. Cryptocurrencies, in particular, are a favorite tool of those working on technical details.

The problem is human nature (and isn’t it always?). By putting the value of 50c on something, you are signaling that this is what it’s worth.  Higher price means higher perceived value, and as recounted by Robert Cialdini, raising prices can, surprisingly, bring more customers.

Micropayments are a favorite excuse of non-customers. If you have something worth paying for, it will be worth paying more than $1. People not willing to shell out a $5 will find an excuse not to shell out 50c either. You don’t want these people as your customers. Pricing psychology and market economics are against < $1 transactions, and maybe that is why there is not a single successful micropayment startup.

Provide real value, raise your prices, and start solving $300 problems instead of 30c problems. Better yet – start a subscription!

In the words of Patrick McKenzie:

And if you came here from Hacker News, you might like another one of my articles:

The lazy way to being outstanding: go after hard things.

When Peter Diamandis stood under the arch of Saint Louis, with 20 astronauts behind him, he announced a 10-million dollar prize for developing commercial space flight.

15 years later: Musk, Venter, Cameron and Diamandis on X PRIZE Microgravity Flight.

The prize was called X-Prize because he did not have that money, nor did he know where it could come from. X stood for the name of foundation or individual that would finance this.

And yet, without the money, without really means to pull it off, X-Prize has renewed the interest in developing the commercial space flight industry and sparked the imagination of other entrepreneurs.

I urge you do do the same in your organization.

Doing the hard things is both the best thing for the company, for you and counterintuitively – your lifestyle.

Corporate environments and more established companies tend to be risk-averse. Everyone tries to be in the middle – do a little more than enough to be considered a good employee.

But surely in your workplace, there is a couple of things to tackle that are considered too hard, way out there, maybe not now. It is my long-standing career strategy to go after those things with guns blazing.

It’s possible because of Super-Credibility.

Peter Diamandis says his stunt was only possible because he used Super-Credibility. He tackled a venture so outrageous, bold, and out there, that people stopped evaluating it in terms of logic.

This bold claim jumped over the usual evaluation straight to emotion. People wanted it to happen, so they believed it without a proof.

Warning: this is a mechanism that can-and-is used for evil as well. Please don’t be a fake news jerk.

You can use super-credibility at work without rebuilding one of the toughest industries in the world like space transportation.

When you tackle something considered extraordinarily hard at work:

  1. Everybody knows your attempt is outrageous,
  2. People like to see outrageous endeavors succeed,
  3. Focus helps you judge what is essential and what is not,
  4. It’s a bullshit remover. And bullshit is one of the biggest momentum killers out there.

It’s easier than you expect

Imagine you are just joining a team that has a hard problem to solve. When you ask about the Elephant in the room, you usually get:

  • This is just the way things are
  • This part is just too hard.
  • We tried once, and it ended badly.

The original decision to not touch the Elephant may have been not as clear, but as any great story, it grows in myths and legends.

With every new teammate, the story is retold and how it usually is with humans, gets more exciting because:

  1. This is how human memory and tales work. Yes, the fish was thiiiiis big.
  2. The current team has to justify – in front of you and each other – why they didn’t tackle this problem yet. To reduce cognitive dissonance, if they haven’t addressed it – it must have been too hard.

And that is not only the perception – when you are working against or around a particular piece of code or business process, you are introducing cancer growth processes – something that should not be there but is contributing to the state of brokenness.

But the Elephant in the room is much, much smaller than previously thought. His most threatening quality is that he is unknown, fuzzy – a maverick.

Why you are providing massive value

According to Ray Dalio (the most successful hedge-fund manager currently), the simplified way to solve any problem goes as follows:

  • Identify the problems in front of goals
  • Solve /work around problems
  • Repeat

When you have an untouchable problem, people will work on other stuff. The problem is that sometimes the “Elephant” will be a prerequisite to solving other tasks.

In the ideal world, the organization would throw significant resources at this issue, because solving it will unlock tremendous value. But resources are people – often the same people who have repeated for a long while that this cannot be tackled. Doing the thing now will hurt their egos.

Good people get sometimes emotionally invested in issues being unsolved.

So when you actually take the Elephant out of the bottle, you unlock all this fantastic realm of possibility. When a company does that, we call it disruption. The whole industry is changed because bottled-up ideas are now reachable.

Benefits to you

I value my quality of life. The hardest problems are interesting, but I do not want to work crazy hours or sacrifice my happiness on the altar of the company’s bottom line.

And yet, taming elephants has become my go-to strategy for more leeway and a happier work environment.

As previously mentioned, super-credibility is a bullshit remover. You get VIP passes to get around conventional processes – aka “bureaucracy.” ( Sidenote about Bullshit: I recommend “Life is too short” essay by Paul Graham ).

  1. People are used to ignoring the Elephant. It’s quiet near him, no micromanagement, a lot of autonomy and space to work.
  2. When you have a huge, audacious goal in front of you, it’s tough to wander and lose motivation.
    Procrastination is your brain refusing to waste resources on your lack of decision. Without this uncertainty, your productivity is easily 10x.

In his New York Times bestseller Drive, Daniel Pink describes what motivates us:

  1. Autonomy
  2. Mastery
  3. Purpose

Read about Daniel’s ideas on the fantastic fs.blog

All of these three things are immediately given to you once you volunteer to take the Elephant out for a walk.

Accelerated learning

Continuing to support my point with famous New-York-Times bestselling authors, I’ll touch upon Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers.

Trying to dissect the story behind success, Gladwell discovers, that the extraordinary people:

  1. Have a certain, but not disproportionate amount of innate ability – aka Talent,
  2. Have put in over 10 000 hours of practice during their ascent to stardom (the famous 10 000 hours rule)
  3. What is very often overlooked, that was deliberate practice. Always on the edge of ability, always challenging themselves.

Most of us have some innate ability that we utilize in our careers. Most of us have access to 10 000 hours to be extraordinary. The hardest piece to arrange is a steady stream of ever-more-challenging problems to solve.

The Beatles honed their craft on the Hamburg club scene, and Bill Gates used (illegally) his school’s computer to get better at programming.

If you can go after the Elephant during your work hours, without breaking the law or going to Hamburg, then you are in a unique position!

Tackling the most challenging issues at your organization will not only result in more leeway but is the most effective way to advance your career.

A trap: The Elephant is hard, not tedious.

The Fantastic Seth Godin has made the essential distinction in regards to succeeding at work:

Long work has a storied history. Farmers, hunters, factory workers… Always there was the long work required to succeed. For generations, there was a huge benefit that came to those with the stamina and fortitude to do long work.
Hard work is frightening. We shy away from hard work because inherent in hard work is a risk. Hard work is hard because you might fail. You can’t fail at long work, you merely show up. You fail at hard work when you don’t make an emotional connection, or when you don’t solve the problem or when you hesitate.

The Fantastic Seth Godin.

The Elephant – the hard work I am urging you to tackle is the task that is unknown, complex, and emotionally challenging. Your Ego can be hurt, you can be ridiculed, and you can fail. That is the hard part.

Copy-pasting spreadsheets or tackling something that should never be done in the first place is safe but tedious and time-consuming. This is dead-end, laborious, and unfulfilling work. Avoid that. Or Automate.

Once you deal with the Elephant, everybody will marvel at your skill, even if you don’t have any extraordinary talents. You have seen my drawing ability and it only goes downhill from there.

Go take that Elephant out for a walk. It’s really friendly, it really needs to pee, and the weather is beautiful out there.

Hey Fellow Hacker News reader!

I think you could also enjoy my piece “Well, we have to measure something.”, And the perils of metrics.

It shows when Quantitative metrics can sometimes not only be beneficial but sometimes turn out harmful, despite popular opinion.